|“Though it’s reductionist to define Hendrix as a bluesman just because he was black, he melded Chicago blues and country blues and interplanetary blues and bent blues like a supernatural. His sound was even thicker than mentor Albert King’s, yet it could get as fanciful as prime Skip James.”|
“Jimi Hendrix changed my life. Each generation influences the following one and as a consequence brings it back to the past.”
-Robert Smith (The Cure)
“He’s a genius. He was a monster. I did Red House as a tribute to him, it’s my favorite. He could play the hard blues. Anybody can put the clothes on, but everyone can’t produce it. It’s got to come from the soul. He was the greatest guitar player that was ever born. I can’t say enough about him. He could play deep blues.”
-John Lee Hooker
“You never told me he was that fucking good.” — (Eric Clapton to Chas Chandler after performing along side a then unknown Hendrix with Cream.)
“Hendrix plays Delta blues for sure – only the Delta may have been on Mars.”
-Tony Glover (Rolling Stone)
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s monumental feat, and with all apologies to the intrepid Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and their heroic 1969 lunar odyssey that resulted in the famous quote, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” I offer that our actual first metaphorical interplanetary explorer was the guitar genius Johnny Allen “Jimi” Hendrix.
Listed as being born in Seattle, Washington, there is some speculation he was only reincarnated there, after living a few previous lifetimes in the dirt poor but musically fertile Mississippi Delta.
From Poverty to the Pantheon of Immortals
Growing up in a chaotic and impoverished household, Hendrix would soon learn to play the guitar on a ukulele he found in the garbage. On one string he would perform songs he had heard on the radio, particularly Elvis Presley’s version of Hound Dog.
According to Wikipedia:
“His mainstream career lasted only four years, but he is widely regarded as one of the most influential guitarists in history and one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes him as ‘the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music’.
Think about that, in only 48 months, Jimi Hendrix altered the course of musical history.
My buddy Rick Wilson loved practical jokes and was truly one of the Jacksonville Beaches’ Merry Pranksters. So one afternoon after track practice, (Ricky was an excellent pole vaulter) and, right after I had just come in from playing a Fletcher High baseball game, he drove up in his dark green Volkswagen bug that was loaded with 8-track-tapes. (yes, I’m dating myself here). Once upon a time those rather large devices, along with still sublime vinyl, helped launch a musical revolution. So, being the joker he was, and still naturally is, Ricky pulled up at our house and asked me to hop in for a listen. Being that his car was a sort of a moveable feast of current music from the late sixties, I was intrigued, of course. So, when he put in Up from the Skies from the Axis Bold as Love lp, I was immediately transfixed. Now, I had loved Are You Experienced, and realized it was a sonic game changer. In fact, you really had to be there to understand and appreciate the impact Jimi Hendrix had on American culture. But Axis Bold As Love was different from Jimi’s previous work, it was a more fully realized, out-of-this world concept that flowed over your mind with bright, vibrant colors and cosmic ideas that shot forth with an explosive power that defied space and time. Rick Wilson’s beetle was transformed into a musical space ship and I was fully engaged and orbiting planet Hendrix.
The Head Case Revealed
“Some cat tried to get me to play behind my head because I would never move too much. I said, ‘Oh, man, who wants to do all that junk?’ And then all of a sudden you start to get bored with yourself, so you really had to play, ’cause those people were really hard to please. It was one of the hardest audiences, in the South, they hear it all the time. Everybody knows how to play guitar. Down south at some funky club, one cat up there starving to death and he might be the best guitar player you ever heard and you might not know his name. You walk down the street and people are sitting on the porch playing more guitar.”
The American Electric Pioneer
“The blues are easy to play but not to feel. If you can play the music, okay. Whether you are black, white or purple, if somebody likes your music enough to be inspired by it, then that’s fine. It’s silly to say this kind of music can only be played by colored people. Really, some people seem to think from their kneecaps. Color just doesn’t make any difference. Look at Elvis. He used to sing better when he sang the blues than when he started singing that beach party stuff. He could sing the blues, and he’s white. Blues is a part of America. It means Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson, he’s so cool. It means Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.”
The Transformation Story
Hear My Train A Comin’ (by Jimi Hendrix). Recorded live on May 30, 1970 at the Berkeley Community Theater with Billy Cox (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums). Originally released on the 1971 Rainbow Bridge LP, this track is widely considered to be the most perfectly formed and satisfying of all Hendrix blues performances. Hear My Train A Comin’ follows an ugly-ducking-to-peacock transformation familiar from Jimi’s Voodoo Chile cycle, but with different symbols. Hendrix recognized this “transformation” connection between the two songs and commented about it on stage; “Here’s a story that a lot of us have been through…About a cat runnin’ around town and his old lady, she don’t want him around and a whole lot of people from across the tracks are puttin’ him down. And nobody don’t want to face up to it but the cat has somethin’, only everybody’s against him because the cat might be a little bit different. So he goes on the road to be a Voodoo Child, come back to be a Magic Boy.” Whether Jimi travelled to a Crossroads, or simply past the outskirts of infinity, somewhere along the line a supernatural transfer inhabited his blues.
-Michael Fairchild (Author of several Hendrix’s LP liner notes)
-No fringe jacket/hat craze
-No Lenny Kravitz
-No Woodstock seminal moment of his unforgettable rendition of the Star Spangled Banner
-No deeply broad based blues revival. Like fellow musical pioneer Charlie Parker, who changed jazz, Hendrix wrapped up the blues in the guise of psychedelic showmanship.
-No wah wah/reverb/feedback/distortion explosion
-No guitar as manifestation of eros
-No revival of overt theatrics in rock bands. Jimi learned from Charlie Patton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Howlin’ Wolf.
-No Robert Johnson Revival (Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend, upon hearing Hendrix play, were certain he was the ghost of Robert Johnson)
-Perhaps no Led Zeppelin
Voodoo Chile – Redux
”Well, the night I was born, the moon turned a fire red/my poor mother cried out the Gypsy was right, and I seen her fell down right dead/Well mountain lions found me there and set me on an eagle’s wing/he took me past the outskirts of infinity/and when he brought me back he gave me Venus witch’s ring/and he said fly on, fly on, ’cause I’m a Voodoo Chile”